Researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University show that the geniuses of yesterday, responsible for such scientific breakthroughs as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Euclidean geometry and Nash’s Equilibrium Theory, are now giving way to collaborative scholars working together across boundaries. Led by Brian Uzzi, the research team searched 19.9 million published papers and more than 2.1 million patents over the past few decades to analyze the power of co-authorship across groups. Their findings demonstrate that science has been shifting in a remarkably fundamental way. Over the past 45 years, the average number of authors on a given research paper has grown steadily from 1.9 to 3.5. Furthermore, Uzzi and his colleagues determined that the so-called “home-run papers,” publications with at least a hundred citations, are six times as likely to come from multiple researchers. It is the richness of bridging connections across multiple groups that enables these bold discoveries.
Brokers play an essential role in fostering discovery. They represent the bridge connections from one group to another. These bridges provide discovery connections that enhance the flow of ideas, insights and information within and across an organization. They are critical in overcoming insularity—the overwhelming tendency of groups to become isolated and inwardly focused. We call these silos. Insularity limits discovery by locking people into a comfort zone of complacency. When this happens, individuals become overly influenced by the people within their primary circle of influence—people with similar skills, experiences and mindsets—and dismissive of others holding different views. Silos severely limit the ability of the organization to be agile. Brokers help overcome this by creating connections across groups.
A great organizational example of discovery connections was the development of the Motorola Razr. When the Razr was first introduced in 2004 it shattered a few cell phone paradigms. It was the world’s first thin phone that sported an illuminated keypad made out of a single metal wafer. The Razr was artfully elegant, with a hidden antenna, and functionally impressive with a high-powered camera. It was also remarkably successful, selling a breathtaking 12.5 million units in less than a year. What most people don't know is that the Razr also had to break some internal rules. To stimulate bolder outcomes, Motorola enabled adaptive space to intentionally bridge groups. Engineers were challenged to leave the comfort of their cubicles in their research and development facility and move into a downtown Chicago innovation lab where they worked side-by-side with designers and marketers on the Razr. Everyone was positioned to act as a broker, fostering daily clashes, debates and discoveries across these normally divided groups. The outcome of these pockets being thrust together was that the broker quotient of the organization increased, resulting in a breakthrough product, the Razr.